The West is home to the world's oldest and democracies, and though these democratic governments take many different forms, from America's republican system to Britain's parliamentary system, every democracy and the principles behind it have their origins in the Magna Carta.
A singularly consequential document in Western civilization, the Magna Carta (Latin for "Great Charter") was a document consisting of 37 articles signed in June 1215 in Runnymede near Windsor Castle between the barons of the English aristocracy and King John, the absolute monarch. The document embodies a series of written promises between the king and his subjects that he, the king, would govern England and deal with its people according to the customs of feudal law. For the first time, the notion of a king's absolute power had been successfully challenged without force of arms.
Today, the Magna Carta is acknowledged as the founding legal instrument of English common law and thus much of the legal principles of the West, an ironic legacy given that parts of the Magna Carta were distinctly intended to preserve the power of the aristocracy against the interests of the ordinary people. At the same time, however, the Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons to prevent King John from abusing his power while his subjects endured lawlessness, cruel and unjust laws, severe penalties and exorbitant taxation, thus fairly earning its reputation as a charter for individual rights against encroachment by state power. The sovereign ruler was now also subject to law, a previously foreign concept. As a cherished and vital part of the common law and the source of both civil and criminal procedure in the West, the Magna Carta is not just the "law of the land" but also "a sacred text, the nearest approach to an irrepealable, 'fundamental statute' that England has ever had."
The Magna Carta: The Great Charter of Liberty explores the history behind the creation and signing of the document, including its causes and consequences, its influence on English law and the U.S. Constitution, and its impact and enduring legacy.
©2012 Charles River Editors (P)2015 Charles River Editors